Hearing all the Sounds

Forty years ago this month, I listened very carefully to all the sounds I heard one day and wrote them down in a notebook. The resulting 60 page work was later submitted as part of the requirements for a Fine Arts degree at what was then the wonderfully progressive School of Visual Arts, in New York City.

I have thought about my “Sounds Piece” many times since then, especially when the anniversary of that day rolls around.  Wherever I might be living, it always seems that my sound environment is far, far noisier and more complex than it was back then. I thought it would be interesting to do another sound piece twenty years later, but even in 1992, the world was so much noisier than it had been in 1972. It just didn’t seem possible.

***

I can’t share the whole piece here, but I have set below some pages from it. The first two list each sound I heard from the moment I awoke that morning until about two hours later. I had placed a small notebook & pencil next to the bed the night before, so I would be ready. (The “shower” wasn’t mine – someone else was in the bathroom and that was the first sound I was conscious of as I woke up).

I was already struggling with the question of how to identify and record the odd sounds we don’t normally think about, as well as the usual ones. I quickly realized that the best – or easiest – way to describe a sound was to simply name the thing that made the sound, a “once-removed” process I didn’t like, but felt forced to use, to lend consistency to the writing. Of course, writing rather than recording sounds directly is already a once-removed method of conveying auditory experience, but I liked the idea of translating the auditory sensations onto paper. I wanted to see what that would look like – like a peculiar diary? – and I was curious to see how this extra layer of activity would affect my day.

A page from mid-day:

I attended classes that day, and as soon as my friends got wind of what I was up to, they began making odd sounds that were very difficult to describe. I was so busy writing I hardly spoke all day. A few people bothered me, or followed me, or kissed me.

I was glad to get away from school, but all the noises outside – from the street to the subway – were hard to capture. Made me grind my teeth!

That night I scribbled with a worn out brain, but I was determined to complete the project.  I had produced a beautifully skewed record of one day – the perceptions of one of my five senses, filtered through my brain and crudely recorded on paper, had left an oddly complete, yet incomplete trail of clues to 16 hours of  everyday life.

Here, the final two pages of sounds (there’s a typo in there):

***

Since then there have been many nights when I couldn’t sleep because my son was crying in his crib, or it was summer and they were dredging the harbor, or people outside were yelling. I would long to live in a place where the last thing I heard at night could be my own breathing.

***

Has anyone else tried to list all the sounds they heard over the course of a day?  I don’t know, but today, unless you do this far away from cities, it will be very hard. Many more layers of sound litter our lives now compared with a few decades ago. We live in a sound and noise polluted world, just as we live in a world polluted by so much other extra stuff. Paring away some layers from time to time and allowing yourself to just be, in a less busy environment, becomes more and more attractive.

If it seems like a good thing to do, take a minute and listen to every sound, one by one. Just listen.

***

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soundscape

http://www.amazon.com/Sonic-Experience-Guide-Everyday-Sounds/dp/077352942X/ref=pd_sim_b_5#_

http://books.google.com/books/about/One_Square_Inch_of_Silence.html?id=GiTyqinsqHMC

http://www.amazon.com/The-Soundscape-R-Murray-Schafer/dp/0892814551/ref=pd_sim_b_2

http://www.amazon.com/Listening-Noise-Silence-Towards-Philosophy/dp/1441162070#_


16 comments

    • Thank you – a friend who saw this on FB just sent me a string of about 10 sounds she heard as she was at the computer, and it was wonderful. There’s an intimacy, I think, that’s out of the ordinary. thanks again, I appreciate your comment.

  1. Interesting post! I have tried doing something like this on a much smaller scale for a fiction-writing exercise. (It was helpful since I tend to focus more on visual descriptions.) But it would be fun to see what I would come up with if I tried this for a whole day.

    • Thank you very much. Like I said, you need to be somewhere pretty quiet. I would love to know about it if you try it. And I can see how this type of exercise could be beneficial for writers. I appreciate your comment –

    • Thank you. I’m reading a Cage book right now – can’ tremember which one as it’s on my kindle, which isn’t here with me at the wifi spot (no power; in NY). What an amazing man.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful post. I began to really listen to the world through microphones so haven’t considered yet translating what I hear to paper…I will now though as it makes for a fantastic record and a lovely memory!

  3. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I really am enjoying your blog. On my second cup of coffee now! As I am reading backwards I just finished with your Hurricane Sandy posts and together with your word study led me to remembering our time without power following Hurricane Ivan and how I rather enjoyed those five days. Our family room has 30 feet of windows overlooking our backyard and each night I sat on the couch and did nothing but look at the shadows and observe how different they were in the absence of the city lights. I enjoyed the unique opportunity to be still and to be in the dark with only a candle when needed, but I found I didn’t really need it. I also thought as I read this post about sitting on our dock at the lake and how often I wish people used rakes instead of leaf blowers because there is seldom ever silence. I was seven in 1972 but I wish now I could remember how quiet it was. As I child I didn’t think of such things but I know now I would rather appreciate it. Thank you for stirring such pleasant thoughts…

    • …and thank you for the thoughtful comments. Ivan gave you a gift, right? I certainly know what you mean about leaf blowers – the bane of suburban existence. They come here about once a week, which is better than when I lived in CT and they were around all the time, it seemed. Then NYC had its own symphony – cacophony – of harsh noises all day and most all night. Silence is precious, and there’s much to hear in it. I was also interested in how different the day was when looked at only through the lens on sound, and how different the sounds were when described by words. All together one of the best things I did. thanks again for the visit & comments-

  4. Awesome and extraordinary.

    So glad I stumbled onto this post. Have you discovered that when you read these pages 40 years later they come with new and unexpected layers of meaning?

    You’ve got quite a story Lynn…

    • I’m glad too, John. So far that hasn’t happened so much – it’s more that it takes me back to a very rich time. I’ve got to publish this. One of these days! Well, I did use it for a final project at school (School of Visual Arts) and the professor, an art critic, was very complementary, so that was nice at the time. But like I said, got to get it out there.

  5. Like a writer’s sketchbook! Auditory subtleties are an area much neglected by writers. As a poet my hope is to convey the sound through the use and more importantly the rhythm of words, rather like music. Vain hope! But perhaps worth trying.


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